For the season opener of Long Wharf Theater's 50th anniversary season, artistic director Gordon Edelstein wanted a work that not only made an artistic statement about the theater but one that reflected the New Haven community.
His choice — Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" — was the perfect fit on many levels. Reinterpreting American classics is one of the hallmarks that has defined Long Wharf, which in 1978 was the first Connecticut theater to be honored with a Tony Award.
It's also by a writer whose connections with the community and Connecticut run deep. Wilder went to Yale (Class of '20), lived in Hamden with his sister for many years, hung out in downtown New Haven (and was a regular at the Anchor bar), and died in Hamden in 1975 at the age of 78. He is buried at the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hamden. Westport Country Playhouse presented an early production of the 1938 play, with Wilder himself in the role of then all-knowing Stage Manager. (Wilder acted in the role seven times over the years and directed it as well only once — in Amherst, Mass. in 1939.)
Long Wharf produced the play in 1987 with Hal Holbrook, who also played the Stage Manager in Hartford Stage's 2007 production. (Paul Newman starred in the role in a 2002 production at the Westport Country Playhouse that transferred to Broadway. Wilder himself played the Stage Manager in a Westport Country Playhouse production in 1946.)
But Edelstein also wanted his version of the play, which is set in 1901 in the fictitious town of Grover's Corners, N.H., to have relevance to today — and especially to New Haven, which is made up of a myriad mix of classes, cultures, faiths and races. He also cast it with actors who have been associated with the theater over the decades.
"At it's core it's about the stuff of our lives set against the backdrop of the stars, as he juxtaposes the every-day and the eternal," says Edelstein. "But it's also about community and I wanted 'Our Town' to look like our town.
"On the one hand [this production is] very Connecticut but on the other hand it has nothing to do with Connecticut because it's about the history of civilization and that's what makes it so moving."
The play's principal character of the Stage Manager — who guides the audience into Wilder's world — and who in the Long Wharf production is played by an African-American actress, Myra Lucretia Taylor, while the rest of the cast is a mix of races. Added to the 14 Equity roles in the production — which is an unusually large cast for a regional theater production — are dozens of members from the community in non-speaking roles. (More than 200 area people from all works of life responded to the casting call.)
But this is hardly the first production of the play with a multi-racial cast or with a woman or woman of color in the central role of Stage Manager.
Over the last few decades the play has been reborn, says Tappan Wilder, the playwright's nephew and executor of his uncle's literary and dramatic properties. "The productions of the play now are much closer to my uncle's intent and now I go dancing like a debutante to the various versions. It's not just about a town called Grover's Corners. It's about everywhere."
Wilder says older generations of theatergoers who grew up seeing the play produced a certain sweet and sentimental way from their high school days might have issues with new interpretations of the play but younger people don't. Now many contemporary high school productions have more diversity than some past professional productions, he says.
Life As A Continuum
"The only qualification to do this play is to be human," says Taylor, who has performed at Long Wharf in the world premiere of "The Old Settler" as well as in "Come Down Burning" and "Cage Rhythm."
What remains at the center of the production is still Wilder's universal and cosmic themes, she says. "He lets us know that we are part of a continuum."
Taylor suggests her role can be viewed as a "time traveler, someone who has a suitcase packed and gets a call to be sent somewhere to remind people that they are part of a larger never-ending picture."
She also likes the nod that Wilder gives to a certain slice of humanity. At the play's end, the ingenue Emily Webb asks the Stage Manager "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it, every, every minute?" The response? "No," but after a pause the Stage Manager says: "The saints and poets maybe, they do some."
"I'd like to think that maybe I'm in that category," says Taylor smiling.
"What Wilder does is make you take a breath and not be so fearful," she says. "There are so many fearful things going on in the world but to know that it's happened before and that it'll happen again, allows you to see the larger picture."
Taylor notes that the play belies its mistaken reputation for being sentimental. "Being human is not a sweet, huggy thing," she says, pointing out that part of life is enduring heartbreaks — a point reflected in the play. She points to a letter Wilder wrote his sister after she had some disappointment in love saying, "It's enough to be human."
Robert Dorfman, who plays choirmaster Simon Stimson, agrees saying Wilder does not shy away from life's darker elements as it follows the childhood, courtship, marriage and death of Emily Webb and George Gibbs.
"We begin with hope and go through machinations of falling in love, and having family, and working, but then its sprinkled with disappointments. We see loved ones go and the final stage is one that we're all headed."
His character most notably goes gently into that good night.
'The character I play is an anomaly in the community," says Dorfman, who was in Long Wharf's production of "The Front Page." "He doesn't seem to fit into the blueprint of domestic bliss that some of the other characters represent. He's a tortured man but his self-hatred is never clearly defined. He's the church organist and in charge of the choir. He's a drinker, which I think is a symptom of a more deeper [issue] than alcoholism and he comes to a very unpleasant demise."
Dorfman points out that when Wilder wrote the play in the '30s it was viewed as a daring experimental play with its bare stage setting, absence of props and use of a narrator to move the audience through the different time periods.
But that shock has been softened over the years by audience's familiarity with the play and fueled by school productions that emphasized the play's lighter elements. But having a more community-centric production, will allow the piece to be viewed locally through fresh eyes, he says.
"When audiences see themselves reflected on stage, it's far easier to take in the material."
The effect should be most profound to those who only think of the play in a particular way.
Rey Lucas, (Long Wharf's "The Old Man and the Sea") says when he read the play he was in the sixth grade in the 1990s. "I was bored with it," he says, saying the play's time, place and population of 1901 New Hampshire didn't connect to the world he knew in Queens, N.Y.
"It was like [the TV series] 'My Three Sons' or 'The Andy Griffith Show' with that kind of that 'Gosh-shucks, Dad' feel to it. Now with more life experience, I've connected the dots of the play and I understand the universal themes and it resonates with me. I think it's a beautiful, moving play and now it just floors me.
He says Edelstein's acting approach "doesn't focus on the period quite so much but rather [the actors'] reaction to it all, as we explore what it means to our lives now as individuals, which I think is true to the intent of the play."
That resonates too with Jenny Leona (Long Wharf's "The Underpants") who plays Emily in the production.
"I really love that we live in this in-between world of 1901 and this modern day," she says. "It takes the pressure off needing to be quaint and allows us to be very real about [the characters]. It's very freeing as an actor."
Leona says she was 14 in high school when she first read the play "and I didn't understand all of it. I followed it but I don't think I understood the big themes. Part of it is that I don't think it's a play that can be read. It's a play to be seen because that's how you escape the quaintness of it — to see someone really living it is how you should experience it."
The multi-racial cast aspect to this production is not addressed in any special way, says Leona. "It's simply there like, 'This is the way it is' and that's so much in keeping with the play, too."
And how will audiences respond to this production of the play? Just ask the Stage Manager.
"Well, they can cry if they want to," says Taylor. "But I also hope they are clear-eyed, understanding that we're all part of a continuum — so wake up, be aware, see life, don't be afraid, embrace it all, go forward, drink it all in, and know that there is no such thing as stasis, that everything is moving, the ground under us is moving. Yeah, that's how I'd like people to leave."
"OUR TOWN'' begins previews on Wednesday, Oct. 8 , opens on Oct. 15 and continues through Nov. 2 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven: Information: 203-787-4282 and www.longwharf.org. For more information about Wilder and his works: www.thorntonwilder.com.
Editor's note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to correct the name of the character played by Robert Dorfman. The name is Simon Stimson.